Here in Palo Alto there’s a movement afoot. The folks over at the Stanford d.school are hoping to get a portion of downtown Palo Alto to become a pedestrian mall. Check out the post on Metacool by Diego Rodriguez for more details and to join in the action.
I love that they have a class called Creating Infectious Action (CIA) there. Based on the recent scare caused by the swine flu, infectious transmission of very small things is a force to respect. I loved Stephen King’s view of this topic (The Stand) as it plays on all of the big fears involved in such an outbreak. The point is, if you want to make change happen, understanding how this dynamic works is like being a change magician.
Damon Centola at MIT has done some great research to point out how social networking theory needs a bit of a makeover. In short, the original “small world” theory (Granovetter, 1973) proposed that people who don’t know each other very well can spread behaviors, information and diseases through a dynamic called long ties. This appears to hold up just fine with simple contagions that can be passed between two people with no other effort (like the flu), but not to hold up if the contagion being passed requires 2 or more people to reinforce it. Think of it like being a carrier of a flu virus which requires you also to kiss someone else in 10 minutes to activate the infection. If you catch the bug, but don’t kiss someone within the time limit, the bug dies out and there’s no spread.
For something like the Palo Alto pedestrian mall to come to life, there’s quite a lot of reinforcement that needs to happen, long ties are too weak in this case. It’s a complex contagion that requires conversation, discussion, influence, and discernment. In order for it to take hold, a person has to first “catch” the idea via one of the hundreds of people posting it on Facebook or a blog (long ties/small world) and then they have to discuss it with people they know well (strong/high bandwidth ties).
According to Damon, complex contagions operate under four social mechanisms:
1. Strategic complementarity (huh?)… that is, several complimentary factors in play at the same time. Like how technology and cost go together to support innovation. Until costs come down, some technologies are not enough to create action.
2. Credibility… this is the “everybody’s doing it” influence factor at work. Research by Chip and Dan Heath shows how hearing the same thing from multiple sources helps get something to “stick”.
3. Legitimacy… if close friends do something together, “innocent bystanders” feel more able to join in.
4. Emotional Contagion… ever feel the vibe of a big crowd and just go for it? That’s this one.
So don’t just let Facebook do your work with a simple post. You have to mix it up with people mano a mano, get some demonstrations going, and experience live interaction to get a real change to take place.